Murmerations. – 2nd and 3rd of February 2013
Last weekend we went away for a friend’s birthday and hired a cottage in Somerset. On Saturday afternoon, we went to visit Shapwick Heath and parked the car at Avalon marshes before going for a bit of a stroll. There wasn’t a massive amount of wildlife spotted but this wasn’t surprising as we stuck to the main bridleway and made very little effort at stealth.
As sunset approached, people started to gather along the backs of the canal. The anticipation of something about to happen was thick in the air. The sun sank lower and it seemed the only wildlife was a solitary swan on the lake, which didn’t seem overly happy about being looked at and photographed.
Then, from behind crimson edged clouds, a shadow appeared in the sky. A long, black ribbon stretching to the horizon; constantly moving like a dark river. The starlings had arrived.
I wasn’t sure what to expect but as they came in a steady stream from all directions, I found the numbers difficult to comprehend. Although there wasn’t much in the way of the swirling, synchronised ballet often associated with these murmurations, the sight at what I can only guess to be a million starlings coming in to land was truly one of the greatest spectacles nature has to offer. And that is no exaggeration.
It appeared like they’d descended to place not too distant from us so we set off along the bank to take a closer look. We hadn’t gone too far before a sound like rushing water came to our ears. Although there was plenty of water about, none was moving with any intent and it certainly wasn’t gushing. As we neared, the noise was akin to a raging waterfall.
It took a little while for our brains to compute that what we were actually listening to was the beating of a million pairs of wings, just behind a hedge of trees, punctuated occasionally by the screeching of one very excited buzzard, or some other hawk.
It was dark when we walked back to the car. Dark and cold, but the spectacle we’d just witnessed, and a woolly hat, kept me as warm as the snuggest blanket.
The next evening we could not resist returning and with perfect timing we arrived with five minutes to spare before the first birds appeared over the horizon. The extra trip was rewarded with an even more spectacular display. The sky was more overcast but the lack of dramatic sunset was more than compensated by the spectacle put on by the starlings.
Three opportunistic buzzards marauded overhead, causing the starlings to swoop and dive, whipping them into one ever changing, fluid entity. As they swooped directly over our heads, the sound was not dissimilar to an aeroplane. The noise coming from the reserve sounded like waves crashing on a rocky beach.
If I had to sum up the starlings coming home to roost in one word it would be, awesome. Photographs do not do the murmurations justice, it’s something which needs to be experienced.
Sadly, and I only discovered after returning home, starling numbers are declining in the UK and they are now on the ‘red list’ of endangered birds. It truly would be a tragedy if one of nature’s greatest spectacles were to become no more than a memory.